Friday, August 27, 2010

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: An Introduction to Textual Criticism

One of my purposes in maintaining this humble (very humble) little blog is to provide an outlet for me to offer information to the members of my congregation which might not fit very well into a sermon. After eight months of study together on Sunday mornings, we are wrapping up Mark's Gospel this coming Sunday.

Mark ends with verses that are typically set off with a note indicating that "the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20." This kind of thing causes a lot of confusion among people who love and study the Scriptures, because they rightly wonder: "Is this part of the Bible or not?" Answering that question is a little more complicated than it might initially appear, but I will attempt to answer it as completely as I can in this and subsequent posts. In what remains of this one, I'd like to give a brief, highly condensed overview of the discipline of textual criticism.

First, let me say what textual criticism is and is not. It is not criticizing the text of the Bible, eliminating those portions with which we disagree or find unpalatable. It is instead the determined effort to derive the original text of an ancient document by comparing the various manuscripts of that document. Thus, textual criticism is a discipline which affirms that the original text matters, and since we are talking about the Scriptures, I have to say that I heartily agree. I want to be sure that I know exactly what God said in His Word, because I am shaping my life around it.

There are approximately 10,000 Greek manuscripts (i. e., hand copies) which reproduce all of or portions of the New Testament, dating from approximately 100 AD up to just past the invention of the printing press in 1440. In addition, there are thousands more quotes of the New Testament text in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, thousands more in the lectionaries (early worship guides), and the non-Greek translations of the text in languages like Syriac, Ethiopic, and Coptic. Text critics compare all these manuscripts to derive, as completely as they can, the content of the original. This is necessary because hand copying then, as now, is an imperfect process, leading to frequent variations in spelling, word order, and even subtractions from or additions to the text. All of these variations are called variants, and there are about 100,000 total in the New Testament. Of these variants, only 500 have any textual significance whatsoever, while the remainder are insignificant differences in spelling (e.g., Simon Peter vs. Simeon Peter) or word order (e.g., Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus). It is also worth noting for those interested also that none of these 500 variants have any impact on any major Christian doctrine, but that what has been called "Mark's Long Ending" is among them.

Text critics compare the manuscripts and then utilize the following rules to derive the original text:
  1. The oldest reading is preferred. Generally speaking, a variant which appears in a manuscript nearer in time to the original writing is more likely to be original than one that appears later because there is presumably less time for errors to arise. Thus, a 4th century manuscript is generally given more weight than a 7th century manuscript, but a 2nd century manuscript is preferable to either one.
  2. The shortest reading is preferred. The tendency of ancient texts is for them to become longer, as scribes added words to clarify difficult grammar, explain hard sayings, or sometimes even mistakenly incorporate a previous scribe's marginal notes. This is not an absolute rule, as sometimes the shorter text is shorter because the scribe accidentally left out part of the text due to the presence of repeated words (a phenomenon called homoeoteleuton).
  3. The most difficult reading is preferred. This criteria is closely related to #2 above, as scribes had a tendency to "smooth out" things which seemed contrary to piety and then-current ecclesiastical practice, harsh, or superfluous.
  4. The reading which explains the others is preferred. Comparing all the manuscripts, which one seems to be the best candidate for being the source from which the others were derived?
By applying these rules, it is possible to determine with a high degree of probability what the exact words of the original text were.

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